Tuesday, October 25, 2011

Chesapeake Bay: Government-Regulated Oysters, Free Enterprise Oysters

Two different approaches via two Chesapeake Bay states, Virginia and Maryland.

A great Reason Magazine article by Rona Kobell.


The Chesapeake Bay is the nation’s largest estuary. At 200 miles long, it stretches from the mouth of the Susquehanna River in Havre de Grace, Maryland, all the way to the Atlantic Ocean near Virginia Beach. The two states may share the waters known as Great Shellfish Bay, but their historical approaches to how to manage the shellfish within it couldn’t be more different.

The divergence happened in the 19th century, when the Chesapeake Bay produced nearly half of the oysters eaten in the United States. Canneries in Baltimore and Norfolk packaged the bivalves, and by 1852 railroads were shipping them to the Midwest.

Maryland and Virginia had long fought among themselves over the bay’s most lucrative product, the species Crassostrea virginica. As early as 1808, oystermen from New England and Long Island were sailing down to the Chesapeake and dredging for oysters after they’d depleted their own beds back home. Both states passed laws banning the practice of dredging by outside companies, but the New Englanders found a way to come in anyway. In 1877, a bay-wide survey showed a decline in oyster populations. Both states recognized that they had to do something or the oysters would be lost forever. That wouldn’t be just an economic blow: Oysters filter the water and build reefs, which are excellent habitat for fish, crabs, and the smaller organisms on the bottom of the food chain.

Virginia responded by effectively privatizing its oyster fishery. Scientists surveyed and mapped their oyster bars, then developed a system for leasing the bars out to oystermen. The leases cost a nominal fee and were renewable every 10 years; to keep the lease, oystermen only had to prove they were working it. Virginia put no restrictions on how many acres an oysterman could lease, nor did it care if the oysterman had a corporation or was just an individual. And if an oysterman didn’t want his grounds anymore, the state didn’t care if he subleased them to another entrepreneur.

Because oysters grow best on a bed of clean shells, Virginia oystermen bought their own shell from shucking houses and placed their own seed on it. If oysters weren’t doing well in one area, the oystermen could move them to another. Because they owned the product, they weren’t restricted on the gear they could use or the seasons they could harvest.

Maryland’s solution, in contrast, was to make the oysters harder to catch. The state passed a series of restrictions on what kind of gear the oystermen could use, when they could harvest, where they could harvest, and the size of oyster they could take.

Click to read the rest. It's well worth the time.

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